Women who experience gender-based violence such as rape, sexual assault, intimate partner violence and stalking have a higher lifetime prevalence of mental health disorders, dysfunction and disability, new Australian research shows.

The survey of 4,451 women aged 16 to 85 also found that one in four Australian women had experienced sexual or domestic violence or stalking, and that the median age for being raped was 13.

The study carried out by researchers at UNSW's School of Psychiatry is the most comprehensive ever undertaken of gender-based violence in a nationally representative sample of women, and was published in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association.

Using instruments developed by the World Health Organisation and data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics' National Mental Health and Wellbeing Survey (2007), the researchers showed that the four most common types of gender-based violence are strongly associated with a wide range of problems for women including more severe current mental disorder, higher rates of three or more lifetime mental disorders, physical disability, mental disability, impaired quality of life, and overall disability.

"It was the strength of these associations that was most shocking," said study leader, Dr Susan Rees. "There is an overwhelming link between gender violence and key indicators of women's mental health, wellbeing and risk of suicide attempts.

"For women exposed to two types of gender-based violence the lifetime rate of mental disorder was 69 percent and for three or more types of gender-based violence, it was 89.4 percent. This compares with a rate of 28 percent for women who have not experienced violence. The link with gender-based violence was particularly strong for posttraumatic stress disorder," Dr Rees said.

"It highlights the need to ensure that expert mental health care is a central component of gender-based violence programs. Similarly, psychiatric services need to be better equipped to assist women with mental health disorders who have experienced such violence."

Read the Sydney Morning Herald story here.

Listen to ABC Radio's The World Today story here.

Media contact: Steve Offner, UNSW Media Office | 02 9385 8107